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  • Writer's pictureSarah Beals Sager

Desert, Cactus, & Westerns with Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan

Hello friends & welcome to our last installment of Slightly Problematic Volume 1! With me, we’ve talked about tourism and intersectional theory. But how did I apply both of those in my research? I went to Old Tucson Studios in Southern Arizona, and asked a lot of people a lot of questions.

Let’s start with Old Tucson. It’s currently closed due to COVID-19, but Old Tucson is a film-studio-turned-theme-park just outside the city of Tucson, Arizona. The structures were first built in 1939 for the Jean Arthur film, Arizona (Lawton 2008). That’s right, the first film made at Old Tucson was about Phoebe, a woman who owned a ranch, baked pies, and personally went after the guys who slandered her reputation. Producers chose this site because of the landscape. They want vast, open, sweeping views, a space to build an entire town (and then run a herd of cattle through that town), but they also needed to be somewhere close to Hollywood with predictable weather (Lawton 2008). Arizona was nominated for 2 Oscars in 1940 (“The 13th Academy Awards | 1941” n.d.). For perspective, the 1939 Oscars were dominated by Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind (“The 12th Academy Awards | 1940” n.d.).

Sarah is standing in the shade of an historic recreation of a Western store front, holding a tablet and papers. She's wearing sunglasses, her student ID, and a wide-brimmed hat. Her armpits are sweating under the backpack straps, and it's ok.
Me outside Phoebe's in 2019, #anthropologist

Since then, Old Tucson has hosted over 400 projects ranging from film, to TV shows, to music videos, to commercials (Lawton 2008). It’s an icon that has appeared in homes and theaters across America, and the world, for over 80 years.

Old Tucson plays into this by effectively becoming a heritage site. Generations of filmmakers and families have walked through those streets. In 2014, Old Tucson committed to becoming a multi-cultural, living history, educational center by transferring their land lease from the Old Tucson Company to the non-profit Arizona Sonora Western Heritage Foundation and forming partnerships with the University of Arizona and the Arizona Historical Society (Davis 2014). The park reuses film and character names for stores and restaurants. Many of their shows are interpretations of films previously made on property. And every year they host local events like the Western Heritage Festival, the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, and Nightfall—their annual Halloween haunt. Old Tucson grew with its audience, creating place in their community.

Now for those of us outside of the Sonoran Desert, after 80 years of seeing Old Tucson in Westerns, it’s pretty embedded in our brains that the American Western is in the Southwest. 49/50 people I interviewed said the Sonoran Desert with its saguaro cacti is a good place to set a Western. It beat out other pictures of Wyoming, Alaska, and South Dakota because it is incredibly convenient to film in Southern Arizona. It’s predictable weather and proximity to Hollywood made Old Tucson an ideal location, saguaros included.

The interesting thing is that saguaros only grow in this one region of North America (“Carnegiea Gigantea” n.d.). The American West is much bigger, but our collective visual is of this one, small area. It gets weird when places say they are one place, like Texas, and show Arizona, identifiable by the saguaro cactus. Why is the saguaro such a big deal? Here to explain is our first guest!


(The following is a transcript)

S-ke:g Tas! A:ni 'an 'ab ce:gig Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, kc 'ab Wa:k amejed.
A:ni 'an 'o wud PhD Candidate kc o'ohandam kc Tohono O'odham Kekel Ha Mascamkud mascamdam.

Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan: Good day, my name is Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan. I come from the Tohono O'odham Nation specifically the San Xavier District. I wear many different hats. Currently I'm a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona in American Indian Studies, with a minor in Journalism. I'm also a freelance journalist when I have the chance, and I'm also a full-time faculty at Tohono O'odham Community College in the Tohono O'odham studies program.

Sarah Beals Sager: Lovely to have you here, thank you for joining us.

A screen capture of the Zoom call between Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan and Sarah Beals Sager.
Left: Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan. Right: Sarah Beals Sager

JRS: I think first to start off, I want to explain a little bit about what saguaros mean to my people. And so we have our stories that explain you know how things became to be our creation stories why you know things look the way they are or you know for example how a snake became a rattlesnake in some cases you know different things like that and so for us when it comes to saguaros it was actually a human being that turned into a saguaro. And so for myself, you know, I don't speak for the whole Tohono O'odham Nation, but specifically where I grew up and my upbringing and my teachings, I look at the saguaros as a human being. And the saguaro provides plenty of different things for not only humans but also animals.

When it comes to our new year—our new year is a season which is in June and July—and a part of that is having a saguaro fruit harvest where we pick the the fruit off of the saguaros—also called the Bahidaj in O'odham—and we turn it into jam, syrup, and it's also made into ceremonial wine. And so it's a big factor you know in our- in our history, our culture our traditions there's another part to all that.

So you have this cultural side within my tribe, but then when you look at anything relating to Arizona there's always a saguaro. And there's there's been times where I've seen things with the Grand Canyon and there's a saguaro. You know, anything situ- you know, oriented with Arizona. And so um you know, that it- that's unique in a sense because this is the only place where you can find saguaros, and it's kind of iconic you know to have a saguaro in advertisements, tourism, films...

I've taken literature classes, where you have somebody writing about the desert, and I remember particularly in one class they were talking about, Arizona and talking about the Southwest, and they started talking about armadillos. We don't have armadillos here. You know? And so it's like, you gotta make sure you get- you know, your facts correctly. To me you always have to kind of see what is portrayed correctly, you know, what kind of looks a little funny.

SBS: The next question is what does the Sonoran landscape mean to you? Which I feel like we covered?

JRS: I can go a little bit more in depth if you'd like.

SBS: Yeah!

JRS: For the Tohono O'odham Nation, we were never removed from our homelands. And so we see this area as the heart of the world you know the center of the world you know, our O'odham jewed, so "O'odham" means people, "jewed" means land. So the People's land. And for us you know like I just mentioned it's it's the center of the world for us. And, you know, there's no other place like it and a lot of time people don't think that the desert has a lot to offer. It's just hot. And there's just dirt here. But there is. There's so much abundance of animals, nutrients within the plants, and monsoon rains in this in the summertime. It's a beautiful place here you know. This is our homeland. And I think people need to recognize that, and respect that, and understand that

when they get opportunities they should acknowledge whose land that they are on. And so for

anybody that comes to Tucson, realizing that they are on the ancestral lands of the Tohono O'odham.

SBS: Yeah, I think you um also bridged into our next question as well, thank you. How are saguaros adapted for their environment?

JRS: Saguaros are really fascinating in my opinion because of how long they live, and I guess the best way to put how they store—I was gonna say house water! You know, because it essentially is like their house, where they're able to just thrive in the desert. They're living their best lives in my opinion.

And there was a recent article that did come out though that was addressing climate change. There were saguaros that bloomed out of season, because that usually starts taking place Spring—here we were in Fall, and they were sprouting flowers. And so scientists and— were kind of looking at that and saying, "What's going on here?" But again for myself looking and seeing, you know, saguaros as people, as our ancestors, it kind of to me was interesting because of the pandemic right now, and everything that we're experiencing. And then you have a s— you know these group of saguaros that bloom out of season. And it's like everything's off. And the environment feels that. The environment knows that. The saguaros know that. But at the same time though, you know we are resilient people. The saguaro is resilient. And I feel like, you know, when things start to get better, so will the saguaros. So I don't know if that makes sense, with, kind of looking at that—if it's a coincidence, or how that kind of correlates. I thought that was interesting, because I was interviewed for that Washington Post article about it. And it made me start to really think about things, but again like I said, we're resilient.

SBS: The next question is, how would you like to see the Sonoran Desert portrayed in the future?

I think it kind of goes back to what I was talking about with accuracy—capturing the beauty that is here—they try to include mountain ranges that, I guess the common person, if they're not from the area wouldn't recognize. But then, you know, for myself, I'm like, "Wait, that's not even like a mountain range that would be here in the Southwest." You know? I'm like—and you can tell! Like, I don't know how to explain that. But you can just tell. And you're like, "That looks like Colorado," or "That looks like, again, like New Mexico," or even, you know, Northern California. I'm like, "That's totally not the Southwest."

I feel like too many times—I understand money is a factor, you know, time and all those different things that go into making a film. But I mean, you got to do it right. So you need to—if you're doing that—you need a budget and you need to make sure that you're actually coming to the Southwest and you're actually doing your filming here. And, you know, getting all of those details that someone, like myself, who is from the area would recognize. I again, you know, just going back to just being accurate and being able to come here, and really capture the beauty and the essence of what makes the Sonoran Desert just an amazing place.

SBS: It sounds like—would you say representation matters, and it goes beyond just people. It definitely applies to place as well.

JRS: Yeah, and I think also too just like, those landmarks. Not only the plants the animals but the mountain ranges, as well, because when you're in Tucson, every single direction you look, you'll see a mountain range. And then on top of it, you know there's places within Tucson that have shown up in film. Yeah, that representation to, just do it right, I guess is the best way because there's been so many times that I've seen, in literature and films where it's "supposedly—" supposed to you know be the Sonoran Desert, and you're like, "Nope that's Albuquerque, New Mexico."

SBS: Where can people go to learn more?

JRS: I think social media is a really good place to, kind of, find out infor—information if you go to the right pages! You know, looking at the Saguaro National Park. Also too, there's a Desert Museum, is another good resource to give you information. To learn specifically about Tohono O'odham Nation, my tribe, my people—we have a website that you can visit and learn more. Also, city of Tucson, you know, is a good place to, kind of, start too, as somewhere to, kind of, starting place and then branching off to kind of find more information.

And unfortunately, you know, Old Tucson Studios is a really great place too, for tours to, kind of, check out and look and look at and see how old films were filmed. And, you know, kind of, get that I guess Western feel here in the desert. But you know it closed—because of the pandemic

and that—it's just kind of disheartening to see those attractions, and other small businesses, and local businesses that have had to close because of the pandemic so you know I'm really interested to see what does end up happening with Old Tucson. If somebody buys it and reopens it, or if it's just gonna kind of sit there, and you know just collect dust, and nothing ever comes of it again. You know, well I guess time will tell.

SBS: It is an important piece of American culture, and if—they've come back before. So I think they can do it again.

JRS: Yeah I'm really—I'm hoping the same thing because one of the main events that they would hold is Nightfall. So all of October, they would have, you know, Halloween you know attractions and different shows. And it was—just I've been going there like my whole life, and so that was always something to look forward to. I really am interested to see what kind of, what happens and see what becomes of it. Because I just really hope that it—I don't want it to get destroyed. I don't want it—you know anything like that to happen to it. I just really hope that—Yeah, I definitely have ties to Old Tucson. And, like I said, you know, I grew up watching Westerns.

But that's—that's all I have.

SBS: And we'll link everything you said in the description so everyone can check it out.

JRS: Cool


If you learned something from this post, show your support for Tohono O'odham Community College with a donation or by following them on Facebook.

If you want to continue the conversation with me or any of us at Slightly Problematic, you can contact us here or on social media using @sltprbdotnet.


Sarah Beals Sager


Sarah is an anthropologist, librarian, and designer. She sees the world as interconnected stories and works to bring those connections to light. She focuses her research on popular culture and how it becomes identity and heritage within audiences. Sarah has studied film-based tourism extensively, specifically how stories can be powerful enough to physically transport and immerse audiences.

Slightly Problematic allows Sarah to continue exploring anthropology without looking for one, perfect solution. She loves her team and is totally pumped to continue their journey together.


“Carnegiea Gigantea.” n.d. Accessed February 18, 2020.

Davis, Hillary. 2014. “Historic Old Tucson Becoming Living History Park.” Inside Tucson Business. January 24, 2014.

Lawton, Paul J. 2008. Old Tucson Studios. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.

“The 12th Academy Awards | 1940.” n.d. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Accessed March 29, 2021.

“The 13th Academy Awards | 1941.” n.d. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Accessed March 29, 2021.

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